Students Compete in Annual Research Showdown to Make an Impact Beyond the 40 Acres

In the summer of 2018, Plan II and government senior Charlie Bonner grabbed his bags, packed up his burnt-orange Jeep, and took off on a 61-day journey from coast to coast in order to better understand the 2016 election. He wanted to get people talking about the one thing no one wants to talk about in public: politics.

Covering more than 10,000 miles, he traveled from major cities like Washington D.C. to smaller ones like Fargo, North Dakota, visiting with people in bars and coffee shops to talk shop about current events.

“There were these big gaps in understanding between different communities,” Bonner says. “I found wildly compassionate people who believe radically different things than I do. This wasn’t a project about figuring out how different we all are. I didn’t want to tap on the glass like they were zoo animals. I wanted to let people know that we can still talk to each other.”

Bonner is one of 27 students who submitted their projects for UT’s fourth annual Student Research Showdown, an undergraduate competition that awards students cash prizes for showcasing their research in two-minute videos.

Program coordinator Robert Reichle said the competition is meant to challenge the students to make their research accessible to any audience. It’s one of several factors students will be graded on by faculty judges, in addition to the actual merits of the research itself.

“It’s important to make your research palatable and understandable,” Reichle says. “Sometimes you’re presenting research to an audience of experts, but much more often you’re presenting to a general audience. It’s a really important skill to pick up that’s almost never taught formally.”

Since launching the showdown, Reichle said he’s seen other universities adopt the idea and UT’s own pool of applicants has nearly doubled in size since the first year. Out of 27 applicants, the research projects cross a wide range of disciplines including neuroscience, nutrition, and mental health.

Youth and community studies senior Veronica Rivera’s project was a personal one. After years of struggling with depression and mental health, a study abroad trip to Mexico allowed her the opportunity to examine how culture and education play a role in seeking professional help.

“The more I’ve shared my story with other peers in college, the more people have opened up and wanted to talk about similar experiences,” Rivera says. “A lot of times, they felt that as Latinos that depression wasn’t something they could talk about.”

In Mexico City, she conducted interviews with strangers, asking them to open up about past or current battles with depression. While some people would admit that they struggled with depression, Rivera says that oftentimes, those people were turning toward prayer or folk healers as the only solutions. Gradually, she began to notice that it was primarily people who pursued higher education who were willing to see a therapist.

Following her trip, Rivera applied to the Research Showdown after hearing about it via email. She hopes that by entering the competition—which will announce the winners on Nov. 13—and putting her thesis out on YouTube, she’ll raise more awareness for a topic shrouded in taboo.

“Struggling with mental health is normal,” Rivera says. “Even if I don’t win, I hope this project at least gets people talking about this. Because if our community continues to avoid it, it’ll never get solved.”

Image courtesy Charlie Bonner


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